One of the early pioneers of digital marketing provides insight on the digital scene in Lebanon and expands into new horizons:
DRIVEN BY PASSION. It all started when I met my partner, Nemr Nicolas Badine, at Concordia University in Montreal. We had common interests and came up with clever ways to make extra money. I am an early technology adopter, I learned to use a typewriter when I was 11 and bought the first Apple Mac 128k, which was my first computer. When the Internet boomed in the early ’90s, I acquired the interest of perusing everything online. After exploring the digital world, my partner and I joined an affiliate program with Amazon, which rewarded users who promoted items online. We marketed them through Yahoo groups and made pocket money. At that time, Nemr was working for an LED screen company in Montreal, while I was doing my internship in one of the leading Canadian telecom companies. I completed my Masters and continued working with them. Later on, my brother started an interactive web agency called ‘BlueSponge’, they needed a partner to manage it at the time, so I worked with them for four years and set up their online marketing department before returning to Lebanon in 2006; after being away for 21 years. Fortunately, Nemr had also made the decision to return to Lebanon, so we considered it as an opportunity to start an online marketing business since we both had the knowledge and background of managing companies and creating innovative solutions. Montreal is the city where I learned my deepest values, experienced independence and established true professionalism, all of that laid a solid foundation for me.
GROWTH OF THE BUSINESS. In 2006, Lebanon had a poor Internet connection and online marketing wasn’t popular prior to the birth of Facebook. Therefore, to kick off our business, we started by acquiring clients from North America and executing the work in Lebanon. When Facebook started to boom, we printed invoice booklets, hit the road and sold Facebook ads; this was how we started growing our local business and making a name for Eastline. As our clientele grew, so did our services. In the first 4 years, we succeeded indoubling our revenues and growing from 2 to 16 employees. We served major clients and achieved getting regional recognition, awards and credibility for our work. In 2011, we were selected by Endeavor, a non-profit organization based in New York that selects high-impact entrepreneurs through a complex process of evaluation and selection. The entire Endeavor experience reshuffled our priorities, which led us to develop in-house products in addition to the services. We created innovative solutions that enabled us to shorten client deliveries. We re-invested most of our profits in other solutions. One of our innovations was Tuned!, an app that can detect what a user is watching and connects them to other viewers who are seeing the same TV program. Unfortunately, we didn’t receive the funding to support its development so we turned it into Social Media ads. Social Mediaads are Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Instagram posts that are sold the same way as traditional online advertising banners. This product gained traction and led to the birth of SPRKL, which became one of the main divisions of Eastline and MENA’s largest programmatic video and display advertising platform.
EASTLINE EVOLUTION. After 12 years, we felt the shift in online advertising to content marketing but companies were not ready for it. Adaptation was essential during that period and in early 2016 Eastline went through a restructuring phase. We re-branded Eastline Marketing to Eastline Digitaland started Eastline Academy, which was the source of guidance and assistance to clients asking for digital talent recruitment, training and placement. The digital marketing ecosystem hasundergone significant shifts over the past decade.
The traditional approach that simply showcases products, services and a brand image was no longer effective. Today storytelling, content and interaction all create impact and, hence, content marketing initiatives are the way forward. This led us to create three separate divisions: Eastline Digital handles servicing and the agency work, DeafCat Studios (founded by one of our partners and Chief Strategist, Wissam Badine) produces video content and SPRKL is the technology arm that disseminates produced content through targeted video and display programmatic advertising. Although Eastline is known for having analytical and technological specialties, we were having difficulties acquiring big accounts without having the creative edge. We thought about hiring a creative director, but instead of going the traditional way of having one creative director with one mindset, we contacted a pool of creatives and proposed to offer them a full-pitch brief where they propose an initial idea. This initial idea is then suggested to
the client and once selected, the assigned director continues to work on the account.
PERSONAL JOURNEY. When we started in 2006, and for many years that followed, I worked for 18 hours a day just to make a name for Eastline Digital. The market was immature and undevel-oped for our type of business. I had to educate the businesses about the benefits of online mar-keting and participate in seminars, conferences, and training sessions. I had to build the founda-tion of a business without the financial support of any kind of association, government, or venture capitalist. Throughout the last 12 years, I worked with more than a hundred employees; some started their own businesses while others were hired by international agencies due to the rising demand for digital marketing services. I’m proud that East-line has been a pioneer in hiring and training today and tomorrow’s digital talents. After the 2016 restructuring, we became more profitable, allowing me to monitor operations easily without having to be as involved as I used to be. All of these accomplishments had their challenges and obstacles. The cultural difference of doing busi-ness was a major aspect to overcome. The lack of talent, professionalism, financial resources, and any kind of governmental help were among some of the more important challenges. To sum up my journey with Eastline, I would describe it as a beautifully chaotic yet an extremely rewarding experience on all levels. It was time for me to move onto new prospects.
REASON FOR A STEP BACK. I believe that when a business reaches that stage of developmental maturity and profitability, one has two options: either make a drastic change to the business or let someone else do it. The first option needs motivation and I discovered that I had to find this motivation elsewhere, mainly for my sake and most importantly for Eastline’s continuous success. Given my role as CEO and managing partner, I’ve been personally known to be as-sociated with Eastline. When I took the deci-sion to step back from operations, we tried to find someone to take over and fortunately it occurred at the same time that my partner Nemr, who was operating SPRKL in Dubai, decided to relocate to Lebanon. I am excited about the team and the strategic plans that we have, and Nemr is the right person to take it to the next level. When you are a CEO, you are there for two reasons: either the shareholders want you there, or you are there because it is your busi-ness. When you first start a business, you are the one doing everything from A to Z. Then you reach a point where all the tasks are assigned to the teams and you are not doing what you are most passionate about. In that case, the best solution is to have someone new to reshuffle things around. We needed to see Eastline from a different perspective; hence, it was the perfect time to step back. I’m not fully stepping down as I still own a majority part of Eastline and will still reside on its board.
WHAT’S NEXT? Since I officially stepped down from Eastline two months ago, I actually had the time to monitor rising digital trends and extend my research. I have also taken the time to reflect on a personal and professional level. Since then, I have been approached by various digital startups that are looking for a co-founder who has the experience to guide them in the right direction. I am also pursuing different digital consulting work for medium-to-large businesses that are struggling with their online activities or facing issues with building their digital capacities in-house. Building these departments is a passion of mine because it directly reflects on the company’s bottom line. The third project is something I’m building on my own. This project is being proofed in terms of scalability and possible execution. If it turns out to be profitable, it can be replicated into different models and scaled into a full fledge company. Currently I’m still weighing in these different opportunities to see what suits me best.
OPINION ON DIGITAL MARKET IN LEBANON. With the current economic downturn, businesses are looking for the most cost-effective ways to reach their customers and digital marketing is becoming the channel of choice because it is measurable, interactive, and affordable. Regardless of the country’s weak digital scene, companies that start incorporating digital marketing into their business would allow them to benefit from it down the road. In Lebanon we have three types of business digitalization: businesses that are not yet digitally active, businesses that have started navigating the digital space and those that are already doing well in digital marketing. There is still a lack in uniformity in the overall activities and an absence of tactics and strategies. Some clients are relying on the traditional agencies that still do not have the proper digital know-how and are still exploring and experimenting with methods to excel in the online world. The need for digital services in Lebanon is prominent; we recognized this when international agencies approached us to acquire Eastline. SMEs and startups are the future of digital marketing as they pave the way with their knowledge in digital trends. Digital marketing needs the right mentality; it does not rely solely on numbers and presence. Instead, it requires the right investment in the right resources and strategy to achieve measurable results.
DIGITAL CHALLENGES. In Lebanon, there is a limited understanding of digital marketing and a lack of correct skill-base to develop and implement proper online strategies. There is also an absence of infrastructure that prevents traditional agencies from starting their own digital departments. There is a need to understand that online marketing is not only about numbers and clicks, it also requires specialized talents for the creation of content and strategy. In addition, our active and relevant online community has weak engagement, mainly because of the large number of influencers who lack the passion for their niche, that are in it for the financial and non-financial rewards and do not add any value to their followers. Another unfortunate challenge is clients who still believe that being online divulges unnecessary information to competitors!
OPPORTUNITIES. E-commerce is a huge opportunity if well-executed, so is intelligent media which is a form of digital advertising that depends more on machine learning and less on human intervention. It all relies on technologies helping companies measure their content’s efficiency to manage their results accordingly. Now that I have acquired a great deal of digital knowledge and understanding, I am excited to explore new horizons and expand in different directions within the same domain, as the possibilities are endless.